Happy Tidy Tuesday!

We’re in the final week of Mindset Month here in Tidy ’24, wrapping up with a strong focus once again on doing only one thing at a time. That’s just how humans are wired (with very limited exceptions).

If you missed any of the earlier topics this month (or from earlier months), visit the Tidy ’24 Calendar page and check out anything that looks interesting.

Mindset Week 4: Multitasking is Evil

We’re wrapping up this short series on shifting how we approach the task of staying on top of our digital lives with one last idea. You’ve undoubtedly heard it before and might even believe it already. But repetition helps, and perhaps my presentation will resonate where others haven’t.

Here’s the idea: multitasking is evil. 😈

We can’t do it.

We are all tempted by the promise of getting more done in less time, and accomplishing this by doing more than one thing at a time seems fantastic. But it doesn’t work.

False Promises of Productivity

This alluring temptation contrasted with disappointing reality is why I want you to think of it as evil instead of just “not the best choice” or “something I can’t do very well.” If there’s a mindset shift to take place here, that’s it. Multitasking isn’t a good idea. It isn’t just challenging. It’s evil.

After all that, I admit there are certain kinds of things you can do simultaneously. You can often pair something like walking your dog with listening to an audiobook or driving a car with having a conversation. The key is that one of the tasks requires almost no thought. It relies so firmly on muscle memory or a memorized routine that most of your brain is free to focus pretty well on something else.

But the moment you try to alternate between two tasks that both require at least some concentration, you won’t do well at either one. For example, writing an email while listening to a podcast: either your email quality will suffer, or you won’t really remember what you hear–or, more likely, both. However well you do at each task, it won’t be as good or fast as if you’d focused on one thing at a time.

This isn’t a new idea. People have known forever that eliminating distractions is one of the biggest keys to doing good work. Most of us don’t have the luxury of retreating to an isolated cabin in the woods or a beach hut to escape external distractions.

Still, I would also bet that the distractions and split focus that plague most of us come from ourselves more than others. We lack the internal discipline to stay on a single task for very long. Or, we try to do too many things and hop between tasks, believing we’ll ultimately get more done that way. But no–we can’t do it.

Preemptively Eliminate Distractions

How might it look to apply this idea to the process of organizing your data? Most of us could work on many things in this area: cleaning email, organizing photos, collecting and acting on notes, reading interesting articles, going through bookmarks to see what’s still relevant, and so on. In the last three weeks, we covered the idea that you can’t do everything, and that’s okay; then the idea that attention is life, that the things you pay attention to make up your entire lived experience; and finally, the importance of limiting your priorities to so you’re able to focus only the most important things without being pulled away by everything else that also needs to get done.

Building on those ideas, believing that multitasking is evil means you do everything possible to avoid it.

  • Turn off, silence, or put away things that will (or might) interrupt.
  • Close apps, programs, tabs, and windows that are unrelated to what you want to focus on.
  • Use an audible ticking timer to help subconsciously remind your brain that it’s focusing on a single task. (This might not work well for everyone.)
  • Take advantage of “body doubling,” where you simply have someone else in the room with you to discourage getting off-track. (This, too, may not be for everyone.)

In short, use any tricks that work for your brain type to keep your attention on the one thing you want to do. Of course, the body doubling approach only works if the other person is doing the same thing or is at least aware of your goal and not a distraction themselves.

It takes more than sheer willpower to overcome the tendency to get distracted easily or to shift between tasks. You have to set yourself up beforehand to succeed by getting rid of everything you can think of ahead of time that might derail your focus. But stay aware of your desire to focus and decide what you’ll do, not if, but when something distracts you despite your best efforts. Because that will happen, especially the first few times you try.

Action Steps

So, here’s your action step for this final week in Mindset Month:

  • Make a note each time you find yourself off-track, losing focus, or somehow in the middle of something other than what you intended to do. Use a piece of paper, your notetaking app, or whatever works. Why did it happen?
    • Did something outside of your control interrupt you?
    • Did you suddenly remember something else that felt important enough to do right away?
    • Did you forget what you were working on before?
    • Did you get bored in the middle of the process and give in to the desire to do something more enjoyable–even if it was still work?

As often as possible, write down when and why you don’t stay on task. You’ll likely begin to see some patterns.

If other people are constantly interrupting, take the time to explain to them how you’re trying to improve yourself, and maybe set up some obvious cues about when they should or shouldn’t feel free to interrupt–a closed door, a specific seat at a desk or table, even a special hat or a stuffed animal placed conspicuously nearby. The other people in your life should empathize with this kind of goal and try to help you succeed, even if only by not doing something they did before.

But if the distractions are internal, it can be even more challenging than dealing with an interrupting colleague or family member because you can’t very well tell yourself to stop interrupting you. In those cases, you must look for triggers you can interrupt or eliminate entirely. For example, having your phone on your desk can be a considerable distraction even if it’s on silent mode, because sometimes the screen lights up when new things happen. Even if it’s not configured that way, having it within reach makes you much more likely to impulsively pick it up and do something. Try physically moving it to the other side of the room. It’s still readily available, but you can’t impulsively do anything with it.

Product and app designers know how valuable your attention is, so they do everything they can to obtain it. Remember this, and put up whatever guardrails you need to retain control. You choose what to look at, when, and for how long.

Examples

If your phone is distracting you, put it somewhere else. If that’s unrealistic, uninstall the apps that distract you, or use something like one sec to interrupt the impulsive pick-ups while letting the productive ones happen. If you’re on a computer, there are apps like Freedom that help you avoid time-sink websites and applications outside of specific hours, and tools like RescueTime that allow you to figure out where your time actually goes.

I use Obsidian for all of my notetaking and writing, and when I really need to focus, I actually use three mechanisms to cut out distractions. One is a plugin called Stille, which dims everything but the active paragraph. Another is a plugin called ProZen, which hides everything in Obsidian except the active note. The third is a feature of the DisplayFusion app on Windows, which drastically dims all monitors other than the one with the active window. (I’ve actually got three of them.) These three things together really do make it easier to avoid distractions.

All kinds of tricks and tools exist to help us stay focused, stay on task, and keep attention-grabbing distractions away. But one of the best ways to start figuring out what might help in your case is to pay attention to what gets you off-track. You may even discover some easy solutions that make a notable difference, even if they aren’t perfect.

Quick Review

To recap this last week of Mindset Month here in Tidy ’24: your action step is to make a note each time you realize you’re not focused on what you wanted to be. Write down what you meant to be doing, what you were doing instead, and if you can, why change tasks. See if any patterns emerge, and look for methods, even unorthodox ones, to interrupt the triggers that pull you away.

Thanks for coming along on this digital mindset-shifting journey. I hope some ideas help you think in new and valuable ways. If you enjoyed this or other Tidy Bytes content, share this post with anyone who might enjoy it, or subscribe to the Tidy Bytes YouTube channel.

Happy data-taming, and I’ll see you next week!

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